These are the days when sports confound. In a cruel split second, the steady rise of a gentle, pioneering athlete destined for Olympic stardom lurched, violently, to tragedy. Canada’s Sarah Burke, the winningest female freeskier in the history of the sport, crash-landed an alley-oop flatspin trick in a Utah half-pipe. Her death, nine days later, has given the sport momentary pause.
Burke had pulled the simple manoeuvre time and again, according to her friend, skier Peter Olenick, who was riding with her in Park City. In landing, her ski “caught an edge,” whiplashing her, head first, into the icy pipe. The impact knocked her unconscious. Initially, Olenick figured she’d broken her collarbone. Soon, however, emergency personnel swarmed her, performing CPR. Burke, who had no pulse and could no longer breathe on her own, was rushed by helicopter to hospital where Olenick, among others, began a bedside vigil.
The only word on her condition came from Olenick’s younger sister Meg, another pro skier. In a message that appeared momentarily on Twitter, the 21-year-old said Burke’s eyelids fluttered and her heart rate increased when she was spoken to. Few, even within skiing’s tight-knit community, understood the severity of Burke’s injuries. After all, they’d seen her bounce back from countless injuries, and far worse falls.
In most sports, the game’s best are those who run fastest, score most, pass with the greatest precision. Not with so-called action sports. There the title belongs to those with the most daring tricks. Also known as extreme sports, its enthusiasts revel in comeback stories, death-defying tricks, and walking away from near catastrophes. The ethos demands that after crashing, athletes get up and try again.
Burke existed at the forefront of freeskiing’s dizzying progression: the first woman to land a 1080-degree spin, three full rotations, and to attempt a 1260 in competition. Freeskiing, the umbrella term for skiing involving tricks and jumps, went wherever she took the sport, the same way snowboarding follows whatever path Shaun White carves for it. None, currently, can top White’s Double McTwist 1260, a gyroscopic stunner involving two front flips.
Among the few to come close was fellow American snowboarding star Kevin Pearce, a Vancouver medal hopeful. The 24-year-old suffered a traumatic brain injury after crashing on Park City’s Eagle Superpipe—the same pipe as Burke—weeks ahead of the Vancouver Games. He’s since had to relearn to walk, talk, even swallow.
None of the dangers escaped Burke. Fear had crept into her game, she explained last January, after she snapped a vertebra in a freak accident at 2009’s Winter X Games, the Olympics of extreme sports. “I try to play off that it isn’t a big deal,” said Burke. “But in truth, [fear] has gotten to me. It’s rough. It’s definitely a mental game,” she added. “And I have a really bad imagination. I can think the worst thing on a jump.”
That wipeout, the worst ESPN commentator Mike Douglas had ever seen, took more than a physical toll. Douglas, a Whistler freeski legend who’d known Burke since she was 14, and considered her his “little sister,” urged her to hang up her skis. “You’ve accomplished so much,” Douglas told her. “You’ve done it all. Take a glory lap. It’s time, now, to take it easy.” Many in her place would have chosen a graceful exit. But Burke kept fighting.
Burke’s next season was a mess. Not only was her back shot, her shoulder kept dislocating and, for the first time, she’d missed the Winter X Games podium, placing sixth. Burnt out, spooked by the accident, she was also terrified she’d lost her edge. Undeterred, in July 2010 she underwent surgery on her shoulder, and spent most of the season recuperating. In fact, she was on skis just nine days last season—including the competition day—before grabbing Winter X gold, reclaiming her crown. It was her “proudest moment,” she said; it had been “such a struggle to get back.”
Time away from the hill had given both body and mind a needed break from a pro circuit that, 10 months of the year, bounced her from Finland to Austria, Japan, and across North America. She’d used the time to renovate her Squamish, B.C., home and marry her childhood sweetheart. Rory Bushfield, a ski film star and pilot raised near Calgary, had surprised her with his romantic side: late one night, he’d hiked deep into the woods, carving “MARRY ME, SARAH” into the snow on the mountainside. The next day, while flying Burke past the message, he popped open a ring box
Burke was born in Midland, Ont., to a family of skiers, and was buckled into her first pair of plastic boots at Barrie’s Horseshoe Valley Resort at age five. By seven, she was wowing teenagers with spread-eagle jumps, and was soon sneaking onto the pipe before school. At 16, two years after making her competitive start on moguls, she made the move to freeskiing and picked up her first sponsor, Salomon, the ski gear behemoth. Within two years, she’d mastered both superpipe and slopestyle. She was fearless. Douglas remembers one time, when the Whistler boys built a huge kicker on the glacier, and, trying to deter her, he offered to build her a jump of her own. “No—I don’t want a smaller jump,” she told him, hiking to the top. “She wiped out so hard,” he recalls. Cringing, he watched her crash, again and again. “She just kept putting her head down, and climbing back to the top.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I just thrived off someone saying, ‘No, you can’t.’ Doubt sets this fire inside me, and makes me want to prove everyone wrong,” she said. When Burke began competing, she was matching the double corks and jumps the boys were throwing, but she was often barred from competing against them. Sometimes, she’d be promised the chance to forerun—to ski the course ahead of the competition—only to be yanked at the last minute. “I’d be heartbroken,” she says. “I remember making phone call after phone call to my dad—not understanding why I could beat half those boys, but they wouldn’t let me in.”
Burke began pushing, swamping event organizers with emails and phone calls—she was “really annoying,” she freely admitted—until finally, organizers relented, and began adding women’s contests to the circuit. The end goal was always Olympic gold. Representing Canada had been a dream since she was a little girl, and volunteering at the Vancouver Games just drove home how badly she wanted it. Burke kept up the pressure, vocally campaigning for freeskiing’s inclusion. Finally, last April, International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge announced the very un-extreme IOC was adding her events, half pipe and slopestyle skiing, in time for Russia’s Sochi Games; they are mainstays of the X Games, a multi-billion-dollar franchise that boasts some of the most saleable names in sports.
The tragic arc of Burke’s career now stands as a caution to the international sporting movement, which has unreservedly embraced extreme sports despite their self-evident risks. Small wonder: in the first few days of the Vancouver Games, freestyle skiing averaged 26.9 million TV viewers in the U.S., outpacing traditional events like downhill skiing and speed skating (in Canada, the men’s freestyle aerials, with their death-defying twirls and spins, averaged 5.5 million viewers—an astounding audience by domestic standards). On day six of the Games, Shaun White erased all doubts about the viability of extreme sports, taking home the gold before a whopping 30.1 million American viewers.
So Burke’s tireless 2014 campaign found a receptive audience, and danger remains part of the allure. “As things like mobile coverage of events clicks into place, you get a younger audience,” explains Linda Oglov, a sponsorship negotiator who represented blue-chip clients for the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics. “They’re looking for something that’s got lots of action and lots of risk.”
But how much risk is too much? Five of freeskiing’s top practitioners have died in the last five years, four from accidents during competition or training. And the skiers themselves seem unlikely to self-regulate. Most have greeted Burke’s death as a “freak accident,” pointing to the routine nature of the move she was practising. Their record of miraculous returns from crashes speaks for itself. American skier C.R. Johnson, like Burke, had a previous brush with death before the February 2010 fall that killed him in Squaw Valley, Calif. After spending 10 days in a coma in 2005, and months in rehabilitation, he marked his return to training with prophetic words. “Right now, I’m working as hard as I can to return to the sport that nearly killed me last year. The joy I get from skiing? That’s worth dying for.”
For Burke, Sochi was the long-term plan. Day to day, she lived for the routine joys of the mountain life. “Every day I ride the mountain or the park is a totally new experience. I love every second of it. That’s what it’s all about: going out there and doing what you love.”